ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick, Tim Blake Nelson, Piper Perabo, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. 121 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence).
Despite introducing a few invigorating ideas into this third instalment in the ‘Fallen’ series, new co-writer and director Ric Roman Waugh can’t quite take the franchise to new heights. It’s undoubtedly a step up from its predecessor (the awful terrorism-as-action-fodder flick ‘London Has Fallen’), and with its unexpectedly mature exploration of the mental and physical scars that the previous chapters have left on our protagonist, it’s about as interesting as franchise originator ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ was entertaining (let’s call that moderately). However, ‘Angel’ is ultimately let down by its flat action and uninspired plotting; it’s not exactly bad, but it’s far from the heavenly pleasure that its title might suggest.
After a failed attempt on the life President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), all the evidence leads FBI investigator Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) towards Trumbull’s most trusted Secret Service agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Banning escapes custody and goes on the lam, a course that reunites him with his nutty estranged father, Clay (Nick Nolte, in peak “grizzled old man” form), and his former Army pal Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), who now operates private military contractor Salient Global.
This being a mid-budget action thriller, Banning’s quest takes him through more fisticuffs and gunplay than you can shake an AR-15 at. However, other than some arresting slow-motion footage of smoke and fire in the film’s opening seconds (as Banning participates in some war games against a squad of Salient’s mercenaries), Waugh and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin struggle to give the requisite action much personality (though the film’s dramatic scenes do benefit visually from a striking tendency towards close-ups). Star Gerard Butler doesn’t have the moves of Keanu Reeves or the derring-do of Tom Cruise, leaving him only slightly above the flash-cutting antics of latter-day Liam Neeson. His fight scenes are forgettable choreographed and choppily assembled, a tough sell for an action flick. Much of this action takes place at night or in the dark too, rendering it both forgettable and murky.
That said, the stunt team does some commendable work with practical explosions, which literally shed some much-needed light on proceedings. These efforts are well brought to bear on the movie’s two flagship set pieces: the intense assassination attempt, during which President Trumbull’s Secret Service is massacred by a flock of bomb-carrying drones, and Clay’s explosive ‘Home Alone’-style resistance against a group of Salient grunts hunting his son (where Clay’s unhinged glee provides many of the film’s sparse laughs). The visual effects elsewhere are far spottier, with some especially dreadful CGI used to render a couple of helicopters and a hospital explosion late in the piece, the latter of which will have viewers pining for the practical hospital demolition mounted by Christopher Nolan for ‘The Dark Knight’.
Other than Nolte’s steady presence anchoring a couple of decent emotional beats, Jada Pinkett Smith stands out in the deep cast. With her offsider Agent Ramirez (Joseph Millson, also good), watching Agent Thompson pushing through what really must be the worst possible day on the job with a pleasing proficiency and no-nonsense attitude offers a welcome respite from spending too much time with Banning. Our hero is such a cliched guy’s guy that it’s tough to take him seriously as a character; Banning drives a big truck, he communicates with his wife (Piper Perabo) via grunts and deflections but animatedly discusses grilling steaks with his male pals, and he bears his mental and physical crosses in manly silence. As he’s proved now in several action vehicles with mixed returns, Butler can reliably embody a tough guy in any situation. But in the ‘Fallen’ franchise, he’s a little too invulnerable to be totally compelling, and a little taciturn to be totally engaging.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the efforts of co-writers Waugh, Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, spending time with Banning would be a grim slog indeed. The trio thankfully sprinkle some fresh thematic gunpowder into the screenplay, though it still lacks a spark to properly set it off (the themes sadly feel like the product of a rewrite, rather than anything inherent to the plot). This movie gives us a different, run-down side of Banning, chomping on painkillers like they’re Smarties. There’s a clear interest in exploring the toll that a life in the firing line has taken on Banning, as well as other wounded warriors like him (particularly Wade Jennings, an otherwise one-note bad guy who benefits from Huston’s reliably snarling brand of villainy). There’s a further dissection of intergenerational trauma, digging somewhat into a “sins of the father” situation linking Clay and his son’s different experiences of military service. However, these interesting ideas are only dealt with superficially, a shame given their potential to reinvigorate a flagging series.
What’s ultimately most interesting about ‘Angel Has Fallen’ is its unexpected underlying sadness. Where ‘Olympus’ and ‘London’ depicted Banning’s ushering of faceless terrorists into the afterlife as feats of unbridled triumph, replete with tasteless quips, ‘Angel’ regards Banning’s showdown with his former comrade with something approaching sorrowful resignation. Other than a few strangely glib scenes in the denouement that feel ripped from a different film, wherein secondary antagonists receive their just desserts, there are no quips here. It’s a new direction for the franchise that feels far more interesting, albeit perhaps not quite as entertaining as mainstream action movie audiences might prefer. Banning’s next difficult mission might then have to be reconciling this tension at the heart of ‘Angel’. Given how easily he deals with faceless goons, this might finally represent a real challenge for Butler’s hero.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 22.